"Ideas are like mirrors because they reflect the local environment... consider changing contexts to get more diverse collections of ideas."
These are among some of the most memorable lines in Tina Seelig's book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. In 2011, that was exactly what I hoped to do. I was 16 years old -- eager to explore and ready to be wrong.
As I sat on the runway at O'Hare International Airport, watching the rain patter unapologetically onto the plane's wings, I could only begin to imagine what it would be like to spend the last two years of high school half-way around the world. In Swaziland. A country with a population nearly a third of my own city, and about 8852 miles away (or 14246 kilometers...which I was quickly taught is a far more logical unit for distance).
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I remember questioning... Everything. How do we establish trust? Overcome the youth-violence plaguing our neighborhoods? Improve education in inner cities? Like so many of my peers, I had a burning desire to try and understand the world around me; but, during my sophomore year in high school, I realized that I needed a new lens from which to approach these questions.
Though I was filled with doubts about my decision to leave home, I felt certain of one thing: by positioning myself in a community so far outside "comfortable," my perspective of the world, and of myself, would forever alter.
The Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa (UWCSA), where I would complete my junior and senior year, was founded as a movement against the South African apartheid. Reflecting the mission of the United World Colleges -- "education is a force to unite people, nations and cultures" - UWCSA encouraged us to engage with the world from an entirely new perspective.
With over 50 nationalities, my friends and peers reflected an array of religious and political convictions. Our corridor, the "Beehive," housed women from Angola, Hong Kong, Norway, the Netherlands, Namibia, Uganda and the USA. Between brushing our teeth in the morning or making Angolan pastries at night, our conversations wove an impenetrable bond between each of us. Socio-political banter often laced discussions, humor and late night conversations. It became a natural and beautiful quality of our friendships.
At dinner, I remember listening to my Peruvian friend, Ximena, reflect on her experiences living in Southern Africa and Central and South America. Her colorful stories further illuminated a world that I was just beginning to discover. On some nights, I would linger by the IT Center, exchanging stories with good friends from Zimbabwe or Tanzania. In Peace & Conflict Studies, our Dutch teacher facilitated discussions on the implications of the Syrian conflict.
Other times, our community gathered to discuss the ethical importance of reducing the length of our showers when we lived in a country where the majority of the population lacked access to clean water. Afternoons spent at Malindza Refugee Camp with peers, refugees and Peace Corps Volunteers demonstrated the importance of a shared dialogue - where members of the community gathered to discuss solutions to improve the library or the latrines.
Despite our differences, we were unified by a fierce commitment to social justice and to education. We were -- and still are -- "Kamhlaba" -- "of one world" as we say in Siswati. We saw -- and felt -- the value in unity -- together we were more and stronger than as individuals. By leaving the comfort of Chicago, I developed profound friendships and recognized the inherent interconnectedness between each and every one of us. Our community was uplifted, enriched and inspired by our difference.
While some questioned my decision to study in Swaziland, it remains one of the most transformative experiences I have had. I learned to expect the unexpected, celebrate difference and cherish the "small" moments that profoundly shape and change our perspectives.
Literally, the road to UWCSA was steep. Complete with twists and turns. A climb that represented my own journey. Most importantly, I learned that there are no prescribed pathways. The journey and the roadways we create for ourselves are far more gratifying.
By taking the "road less traveled," the road I had once only dared to dream of, I learned more about myself and the world around me.
It wasn't being 14246 kilometers away from home that taught me these lessons. It was the depth and breadth of ideas that I encountered - " a wider collection of ideas."
Finally, I am reminded by my community in Chicago and my peers from UWC that I have been incredibly fortunate to have such opportunities. Thus, we have an obligation to create similar possibilities for other young people.
Let's continue the journey together.
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